In the far south-west of Ireland, the Ring of Kerry is one of the world’s most famous tourist routes and an ideal destination for a family break. The Gulf Stream-warmed waters of the Atlantic moderate the climate here, making the land lush and green. The area’s isolation from the galloping modernisation that turned much of Europe from a rural to an urban civilisation so quickly has preserved both a way of life and some wonderful wildlife habitats.
The Ring takes in a great variety of landscapes – the famous mountains and lakes of Kerry, rolling farmland and rugged heath and moor, ancient woodlandsand some of Europe’s most beautiful coastline – and is home to a huge variety of wildlife.
Killarney National Park
The country’s oldest national park sits on what was the Muckross Estate, which was donated to the nation in 1932. The house and gardens are now a major tourist attraction in their own right. As a private estate, the land was protected from agricultural development – the main purpose of the land was to provide good hunting, though wood was felled for its timber value and to fuel iron smelting – and so boasts an extraordinary continuity of habitat. It has been wooded for around 10,000 years and contains some unique plants and animals.
The park contains the largest native woodland left in Ireland at around 120 square kilometres and its oak and yew plantations are considered internationally important.
Naturalists divide the Killarney woods into three types: oak, yew and wet woodlands around the lakes. All have their own characteristics and there are also mixed woodlands – Ross Island is a good example.
The oak woods are survivors of the great forest that once covered the whole of Ireland. The commonest type of oak here is Sessile Oak, ironically the national tree of Wales, which loves the acid soil. You’ll also see holly and Strawberry Trees, a plant so typical of the area it is named the Killarney Strawberry. The fruits can be eaten, but they’re not very pleasant.
The most important inhabitants of these woodlands – the reason why they have European protection – are not very spectacular to the eye. They are the small mosses, ferns and liverworts which grow on rocks and sometimes as parasites on tree trunks.
If you’re not a specialist you will need a guidebook to help you identify members of the most important collection of these plants in Europe. Rarities include:
Cyclodictyon laetivirens,Lejeunea flava, Sematophyllum demissum, Daltonia splachnoides, and Radula carringtonii.
The yew woodlands are also internationally important. This evergreen tree has ancient links with religion and magic. It is thought to have been the sacred tree of the druids and is often found living to a great age close to long-standing religious sites. It was prized for its use in making long bows.
Yew woodlands are now very rare, and the Killarney yew woods have the highest level of European protection as one of only three woodlands of its type on the continent. Here too the mosses and liverworts flourish.
Finally, the wet woodlands are rich in Alder, Ash, Willow and Downy Birch with a rich under layer of grass, rush, sedges and beautiful wild flowers including meadow sweet, water mint and marsh bedstraw.
Bogs are also an important landscape in the park with their own valuable flora. Heathers, Western Gorse, Butterworts and Bilberry flourish. There are rare mosses, lichens and liverworts too.
Important Plants of the Killarney National Park
The Park, with its gentle climate, can support species which are only otherwise found in southern Europe. There are also North American species here including Pipewort and Blue-eyed Grass.
The Killarney fern (Trichomanes speciosum) is only found in the park. Its beauty – it grows most commonly under waterfalls – is one of the reasons why it is so rare. Tourists used to buy it as a souvenir of their trip round the Ring.
The Killarney Whitebeam is another local speciality, named for the flash of white that’s its leaves give when turned up by the wind.
The Kerry Violet is the common name given to the Greater Butterwort which sits in the bog lands, digesting any unfortunate insects which fall into its grasp.
Irish spurge is also unique to the area. It has a strong folklore and its sap was used to treat warts. The sap was also a fisherman’s friend, it poisoned fish, stopping their gills from working.
Birds of the Killarney National Park
The mix of woodlands and water-rich habitats make the park an important bird habitat. It’s a rich mix and 141 species have been recorded here.
They include those lively acrobats, the Blue Tit. The Chaffinch with its red underbelly and blue cap. The Goldcrest, whose yellow, crown-like head markings led it to be called the ‘King of the Birds’ despite its diminutive size. Red-breasted robins and the tiny Wren also feed on insects among the oaks.
On the higher ground Meadow Pipits, little Stonechats and Ravens dominate.
These are commonly seen though. Twitchers may be on the lookout for Redstart, Wood and Garden Warblers, Red Grouse and Ring Ouzel. This is the only place in the British Isles where you are likely to see Chough, the black-plumaged cousin of the Jackdaw with its brightly coloured legs.
Merlin and Peregrine Falcons hunt and breed here, and Osprey and Golden Eagles have been residents in the past who may yet return. Osprey still sometimes rest and feed around the lakes during their migration.White-tailed Eagles were introduced into the park from 2007, although not all have stayed in the area.
The summer sees the arrival of Swallows, Swifts and Cuckoos.
Around the lakes, look out for Little Grebes, Mallards, Dippers, Water Rails, the flashing blue of Kingfishers and stately Herons.
In the winter, the lakes, particularly Lough Leane, are an important resting place for migrating birds. Among these visitors are Fieldfare and Redwing and wildfowl like: Wigeon, Pochard, Whooper Swans, Teal, Coot, Tufted Ducks, Cormorant and Goldeneye. The Greenland white-fronted geese who visit are very rare.
Animals of Killarney National Park
The stars of the Killarney National Park are undoubtedly Ireland’s only native, wild Red Deer. There are about 700 of these wonderful animals which tend to keep to the higher ground. In the past they were hunted by the local aristocracy and may have been cross bred with introduced deer to keep the herd strong.
The rare Bank Vole is also a native of the Park. This small, mouse-like creature is an accidental introduction and is tough to spot, living most of the time in leaf-lined burrows.
Pine Marten are a relative of the badger and wow-betide any Bank Voles they come across. They have a flash of yellow fur on their throats and are about the size of a large cat.
Sika deer are another introduction. They were brought to Europe from Japan in the 19th century, essentially because they are so pretty. They have since thrived.
You’ll also find almost all of Ireland’s native mammals in the park. Squirrels, rabbits, badgers, hedgehogs, the Irish Hare, shrews and as night falls over the woodlands a host of bats come out.
Most notable among the insects of the Park is the Purple Hairstreak butterfly, which is most commonly seen fluttering high among the oak leaves in the summer months.
Around the lakes you might see the Northern Emerald Dragonfly, this is the only place in Ireland that it can be found.
If slugs are your thing, then the Kerry Slug should be looked out for in wet weather. Apparently it is the only slug that can roll into a ball.
The Coasts and Islands of Kerry
One of the wonders of Kerry is its diversity. Coast and mountain is a magical mix and this is one of Europe’s whale watching hotspots – even giant humpbacks have been seen in the Atlantic waters to the west.
The Skellig Islands are tourist sites these days, not least because they are such important wildlife habitats.
Seabirds gather in enormous numbers to breed on the cliffs. European Storm Petrels, Northern Gannets, Fulmars, Manx Shearwaters, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common Guillemots, Razorbills and Atlantic Puffins are the most numerous. The charming Puffin is a particular favourite with visitors and there are up to 4,000 of them to be found on Great Skellig.
Choughs and Peregrine Falcons can be spotted inland.
In the waters you can expect to see Grey Seals, Dolphins, Minke Whales, Beaked Whales and even Leatherback Turtles.go back